Feminism in the United States

A Short Illustrated History

Technically speaking, I don't believe there has ever been a single united feminism. There have been multiple feminisms representing the efforts of women to live into their full humanity in a world shaped by and for the generally larger and more violent male half of the human species.

To the extent that there is a capital-F Feminism that has dominated the history of feminist thought, it tends to correspond with the goals of the upper-class heterosexual white women who have traditionally been given, and still tend to have, disproportionate power to spread their message--but the movement is so much more than that.

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Mary Shelley
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

During the 18th century, European political philosophy centered on a conflict between two great, wealthy men: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) criticized the idea of natural rights as a rationale for violent revolution; Paine's The Rights of Man (1792) defended it. Both focused, naturally, on the relative rights of men.

English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft beat Paine to the punch in her response to Burke titled A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), but she parted ways with both of them in a second volume titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Although the book was technically written in Britain, it arguably represents the beginning of first-wave American feminism.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter, Harriot.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter, Harriot. Photo: Library of Congress.

But Wollstonecraft's book only represented the first widely read presentation of American first-wave feminist philosophy, not the beginning of the American first-wave feminist movement as such. Although some women (most notably U.S. First Lady Abigail Adams) would agree with her sentiments, what we think of as the first-wave feminist movement probably began at the Seneca Falls Convention of July 1848.

At the Convention, prominent abolitionists and feminists of the era, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (pictured on the left) authored a Declaration of Sentiments patterned after the Declaration of Independence which asserted fundamental rights often denied to women, including the right to vote.

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Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth. Photo: Library of Congress.

The 19th-century feminist movement had its roots in the abolitionist movement; it was, in fact, at a global abolitionists' meeting that the Seneca Falls organizers got their idea for a convention. Still, despite their efforts, the central question of 19th century feminism was whether it was acceptable to promote black civil rights over women's rights.

This divide obviously leaves out black women, whose basic rights were compromised both because they were black and because they were women. Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and an early feminist, remarked in her famous 1851 speech: "I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon."

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Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell, co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women. Photo: Library of Congress.

But white men remained in control, partly because black civil rights and women's rights were set against each other. Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself complained about the prospect of black voting rights in 1865. "Now," she wrote, "it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk in the kingdom first."

In 1896, a group of black women, led by Mary Church Terrell (photographed on the left) and including such luminaries as Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was created out of a merger of smaller organizations. But despite the efforts of the National Association for Colored Women and similar groups, the national feminist movement became identified primarily--and enduringly--as white and upper-class.

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Suffragists' March (1912)
A suffragists' march (1912). Photo: Library of Congress.

As four million young men were drafted to serve as U.S. troops in World War I, women took over many jobs traditionally held by men. At the same time this occurred, the women's suffrage movement experienced a resurgence that dovetailed with the growing antiwar movement.

The result: finally, some 72 years after Seneca Falls, the U.S. government ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.

While black suffrage was not to be fully established in the South until the 1965 (and continues to be challenged to this day by voter intimidation tactics), it would have been inaccurate to even describe the United States as a true representative democracy prior to 1920 because only about 40% of the population--white males--were allowed to elect representatives.

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Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter. Photo: Library of Congress.

It's a sad fact of American history that our greatest civil rights victories came after our bloodiest wars. The end of slavery, for example, came about only after the Civil War; the Nineteenth Amendment after World War I; and the women's liberation movement only after World War II. As 16 million American men went off to fight, women essentially took over maintenance of the U.S. economy. Some six million women recruited to work in military factories, producing munitions and other military goods, were symbolized by the War Department's "Rosie the Riveter" poster (shown left).

When the war was over, it became clear that American women could work just as hard and effectively as American men--and the second wave of American feminism was born.

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1966: The National Organization for Women (NOW) is Founded

Betty Friedan, co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Betty Friedan, co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Photo: Library of Congress.
Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique (1963) took on "the problem that has no name"--the cultural gender roles, workforce regulations, government discrimination, and everyday sexism that had left women subjugated at home, at church, in the workforce, in educational institutions, and in the eyes of their government.

In 1966, Friedan co-founded NOW--the first and still the largest major women's liberation organization.

But there were early problems with NOW, most notably Friedan's opposition to lesbian inclusion (which she referred to in a 1969 speech as "the lavender menace"). In 1977, Friedan repented of her past heterosexism and embraced lesbian rights as a non-negotiable feminist goal. It has been central to NOW's mission ever since.

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Shirley Chisholm
1972 Democratic presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. Photo: Library of Congress.

Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) was not the first woman to run for president on a major-party ticket--that was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) in 1964--but Chisholm was the first to make a serious, hard run. Her candidacy provided an opportunity for the women's liberation movement to organize around the first (and, to this date, only) major-party radical feminist candidate for the nation's highest office.

Chisholm's campaign slogan, "unbought and unbossed," was more than a motto. She alienated many with her radical vision of a more just society--but she also befriended infamous segregationist George Wallace while he was in the hospital. She was completely committed to her core values, and didn't care who she ticked off in the process.

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Roe v. Wade Protest at Supreme Court Building
Pro-choice and pro-life protesters chant opposing slogans at a Roe v. Wade protest event in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images.

The right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy has always been controversial, mostly because of religious concerns regarding the potential personhood of embryos and fetuses. A state-by-state abortion legalization movement had achieved some success during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but in most of the country--most notably the so-called Bible Belt--abortion remained illegal.

This all changed with Roe v. Wade in 1973, angering social conservatives. Soon the national press began to perceive the entire feminist movement as being concerned primarily with abortion, just as the emerging Religious Right appeared to be. Since 1973, abortion rights has remained the elephant in the room in any mainstream discussion of the feminist movement.

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Carter Signs ERA Bill
Jimmy Carter signs the U.S. House resolution supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. Photo: National Archives.

Originally written by Alice Paul in 1923 as a logical successor to the Nineteenth Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendent (ERA) would have prohibited all gender-based discrimination at the federal level. But Congress alternately ignored and opposed it until it finally passed by overwhelming margins in 1972, and was quickly ratified by 35 states. Only 38 were needed.

But by the late 1970s, the Religious Right had successfully mounted an opposition to the amendment based largely on opposition to abortion and women in the military. Five states rescinded ratification, and in 1982 the amendment officially died. Since that time, opposition to the amendment has been so strong as to effectively remove it from the national policy debate.

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Rebecca Walker
Rebecca Walker, who coined the phrase "third wave feminism" in 1993. Photo: © 2003 David Fenton. All rights reserved.
The 1980s were a depressing period for the American feminist movement. The Equal Rights Amendment was dead. The conservative and hypermasculine rhetoric of the Reagan years dominated national discourse. The Supreme Court began to drift incrementally to the right on important women's rights issues. And an aging generation of predominantly white, upper-class activists largely failed to address issues impacting women of color, low-income women, and women living outside of the United States.

In 1993, feminist author Rebecca Walker--herself young, Southern, African-American, Jewish, and bisexual--coined the term "third-wave feminism" to describe a new generation of young feminists working to create a more inclusive and comprehensive movement.

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2004: This is What 1.4 Million Feminists Look Like

The March for Women's Lives, 2004
The March for Women's Lives (2004). Photo: © 2005 D.B. King. Licensed under Creative Commons.
When NOW organized a March for Women's Lives in 1992, Roe was in danger. The march on DC, with 750,000 present, took place on April 5th. Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court case that most observers believed would lead to a 5-4 majority striking down Roe, was scheduled for oral arguments on April 22nd. (Justice Anthony Kennedy later defected from the expected 5-4 majority and saved Roe.)

When a second March for Women's Lives was organized, it was led by a broader coalition that included LGBT rights groups and groups specifically focusing on the needs of immigrant women, indigenous women, and women of color. The turnout, 1.4 million, set a DC protest record--and showed the power of the new, more comprehensive women's movement.